Lithium and Its Sources

As the threats of disastrous climate change loom closer by the decade, the global urgency to reduce carbon emissions through the implementation of renewable energy sources steadily rises. The intermittent nature of renewables as well as energy storage needs for daily necessities (transportation, smartphones, etc.) produces demands for reliable energy storage with high performance. Lithium often, if not always, presents itself as a vital component in most contemporary energy storage technologies. Li-ion batteries are currently the most popular electrical energy storage media with a wide range of applications, from fueling gadgets to fueling cities.
An example of Li-based technology used to support renewable energy generation is the ambitious wind power farm established in 2017 at Hornsdale, South Australia. The Hornsdale Power Reserve is owned by Neoen, with technologies made possible by Tesla Inc. This wind power farm comes equipped with 99 turbines with a capacity of 315 MW, further complemented by the world’s largest Li-ion battery with a storage capacity of 100 MW. The electricity supplied by the power farm is sufficient to supply the needs of more than 30,000 households practically 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, regardless of weather conditions.
Like gasoline in the past, lithium is also expected to be the “fuel” behind future mobility solutions. Goldman Sachs predicts an exponential increase in EV demands and EV production in the future. They predicted 25 million units of EVs sold globally by the year 2024. This dramatic increase in EV adoption is also expected to be mirrored by lithium demands. A small rise of 1% in EV usage is followed by an increased demand of 70,000 tons in lithium.
Batteries containing lithium, mostly in the form of Li-ion batteries, have the highest specific energy and specific power. This fact alone has led to its rapid increase in popularity. In 2014, Li-ion batteries only occupied 33.4% of the entire battery industry, which was still a fairly small industry priced at $49 billion. In 2025, the battery industry is expected to grow to approximately $112 billion in value, with 70% of it dominated by Li-ion batteries.
Lithium belongs to alkali metals in the periodic table. In its raw form, it is a relatively soft metal with a silver sheen. Lithium is the lightest known metallic element, with a mass density so low that it even floats on water. It can be found in naturally occurring brines or minerals of hard rocks and clay deposits.

Metals for cathode in Li-ion battery

Lithium is not the only metal that is used in lithium-ion cells. As a common type of commercial power storage, lithium-ion batteries consist of three major parts called anode, cathode, and electrolyte. The common anode material is graphite, electrolyte substance is lithium salt, while cathode material is various depending on the specification of the technology supported. Types of cathodes, including LiNiCoAlO2, LiCoO2, LiMn2O4­, and LiNiMnCoO2, containing cobalt, manganese, nickel, and even aluminium.
Each of these materials bear concern towards the supply chain of the batteries, especially the materials that are under the monopoly of a single country. In 2014, nickel prices rose more than 50% due to an export ban by Indonesia, one of the top world nickel producers. 65% of the world’s cobalt production comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo which is politically unstable. 65% of flake graphite is mined in China, with poor environmental concerns and bad labor practices. 75% lithium also fulfilled in the ”Lithium Triangle” which are Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia. Dominations of these materials would control the pricing and impact the battery supply chain.

Lithium sources and its distribution

Lithium is mostly found in brine deposits such as continental brines (59%), geothermal brines (3%), oil brines (3%). Other sources are pegmatites (25%) and sedimentary rocks, in the form of hectorite (7%), and jadarite (3%). Lithium reserves that have been measured globally are estimated at around 40 million tonnes. Of this amount, the USGS estimated that only around 13 million tonnes of lithium reserves have been mined economically to date. Lithium sources are classified into three deposits. They are sedimentary deposits, pegmatite deposits, and brine deposits. For the sedimentary deposits, It is estimated that there are about 2 million tonnes of lithium reserves in hectorite as clay deposits (smectic phases of Li, Na, Mg) that contain 0.7% Lithium surrounding Kings Valley, California. In addition, lithium occurs in Jadarite as a lithium borosilicate (zeolite) and only found in Jadar Valley, Serbia with proven reserves totalling up to 200 million tonnes.
The pegmatite deposits are mainly found in Greenbushes, a timber and mining town located in the South West Region of Western Australia with an average percentage of produced lithium at about 1.59% then followed by other countries such as Congo (~0.5%), China (~0.6%), USA (~0.7%), Canada (~1.3%), and Zimbabwe (1.4%). The Greenbushes pegmatite is a giant pegmatite dike of Archean age with substantial Li-Sn-Ta mineralization. The lithium ore zones comprise mainly spodumene, apatite, and quartz. The mine has an estimated reserve of 86.4 million tonnes for 1.35% Li2O. A series of open cut mining pits as well as three process facilities for the operation. The mining process sequences are gravity separation, flotation, dense media separation, and magnetic separation will deliver end-product as lithium hydroxide or lithium carbonate. Unfortunately, there are several problems faced namely risk on environmental issues, mining cost high, tailing pond, and high cost logistics.
Lithium brine deposits are classified in three types, namely continental brines (59%), geothermal brines (3%), and oil brines (3%). The continental brines are found in salt flats in the Lithium Triangle (Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina), Nevada, and China. It has some characteristics such as a basin, located in active tectonic conditions, associated with magmatism or intrusion or hydrothermal fluids supplying lithium. In it, there are rocks with minerals containing lithium and aquifers. There are some advantages to producing lithium from this source, such as cost effectiveness with low operational cost, no mine infrastructure required, ore processing, or tailing ponds. Unfortunately, it possesses some drawbacks such as the recovery process that highly depends on evaporation rates, weather, and wind.
The geothermal brine type is located in Salton Sea, Iceland, and New Zealand. The lithium content varies depending on the location of the geothermal field. The extraction method is preferred as it is more eco-friendly than traditional lithium mining with nearly zero environmental impacts. Lithium is extracted by direct precipitation as lithium salts or captured using ion exchange resins. The metal extraction process should not alter the chemical characteristics of the geothermal fluid (sustainable reinjection). Meanwhile the oil brines surround The Smackover Formation, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Keduc, Arkansan, and East Texas. It is found as wastewater of oil products that are rich in lithium, called as petrolithium. Lithium from this source possesses cost and time efficiency, easy to extract with rapid high-quality, and commercial grade lithium. The environmental footprint is minimal, making the permittance process simpler.

Lithium resources in Indonesia

The three main types of lithium reservoirs can actually be found in parts of Indonesia. First, pegmatite deposits which are distributed along the central axis of Sumatra Island, including Sibolga granitoid complex in North Sumatera. They are deposits of lithium which come from mining. The second, geothermal brines, are lithium deposits which have liquid characteristics taken from liquid reservoirs under the ground found in the Dieng fields. The third are oil brines which are widespread over the Indonesian archipelago.
There are immediate steps that could be taken if the potential of lithium extraction from the brines in Indonesia is to be assessed. First, water chemistry data should be collected, and its distribution in oil and geothermal fields should be examined. Then, the potential of lithium production should be meticulously calculated. Subsequently, the cut-off lithium content for both sources (geothermal fluids and oil formation waters) should be determined to maximize economic feasibility. Next, technologically mature extraction technologies should be reviewed, and selected based on pilot testing results. Finally, the valid legal framework relating to the rights of mineral extraction should also be reviewed.

This is a summary of a talk given by Yulini Arediningsih, MSc as a part of an NBRI Lecture Session on November 14th 2020

Date : 04 December 2020
Written by : NBRI
Share Article